by Rod Smith MW

The Low-Down on Bordeaux 2022

The 2022 vintage in Bordeaux, as across all of France and most of the rest of Europe, was very hot. Regular news stories about daily temperatures exceeding 40°C were prominent. In the UK and Portugal, ‘hottest ever’ records tumbled. The highest temperature in France was 42.6°C at Biscarosse in the Landes in July, just 65km south of Bordeaux. It is, however, worth noting that even 2022’s highs in France were several degrees less than the heatwave of late June 2019. What really marked 2022 out was that it saw not one heatwave, but four, between June and August. Or, as Pierre-Olivier Clouet of Château Cheval Blanc put it, “One massive heatwave with four even bigger heatwaves during it”.

In September I, and many others, including I think many people on the ground, feared that 2022 would be another 2003, with raisining and shrivelling of the grapes on the vine resulting in a rush to pick fruit which is over-ripe in terms of flavour and sugar (and therefore alcohol) and yet not ripe enough in terms of tannins and structure – all factors that are easily displayed in the resultant wine, and which – if anything – become more exaggerated over time. Parallels to 2003 were widely alluded to in the months before harvest, compounded by the press stories of everything heat-related prompting comparisons (even with 1977 in the UK).

But the vintage 2022 in the cellars displays something entirely different. A very unexpected freshness to the wines, and with very few exceptions nowhere near as much alcohol as in other recent ‘warm’ vintages (notably 2015 and 2018). What can have accounted for this?

I asked the producers the same questions and I received a variety of responses. The only common reply is that it was not one factor, but some combination.

Hot, hot, hot

Firstly, the warmth came early. In fact, unlike most other recent hot vintages (2003, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2018) spring was also warm. The vines budded and pushed early (with the concomitant risk of subsequent frost. Not without problems – some areas, especially the Graves and St Estèphe lost some buds to frost the night of 4-5 April, but this was not widespread and not much of an issue for most). But in general the early warmth allowed the vines to begin their self protection, in terms of leaf growth, early.

It was not only temperature but also the water. Edouard Moueix of JP Moueix, said “the dry spring meant that the plants could resist better the dry environment of what followed. 2022 saw 12% less rain throughout the year against the average, and even less from budburst to harvest. Vines’ level of stomata are determined at budbreak, and as this was already warm and dry then there was less of an issue with what was to come.” This was a common theme. Unlike in 2003, the heat was not a shock – meteorologists saw it coming, and so, it seems, did the vines. It was a gradual build up.

According to Benjamin Lafôret of Château Angélus the vines’ deep roots because of many dry years and summers helped them cope with the low water in 2022

Water of life

What rain there was fell mainly, and helpfully, in June where rainfall was above average for the month. This, along with the clay soils of the plateau of Pomerol was the explanation for the freshness in a particularly excellent La Conseillante this year, according to Marielle Cazeau. Without disrupting flowering, this water provided all but the most shallow-rooted young vineyards with resources to draw on for the next very dry eight weeks. (Irrigation was permitted for such vineyards in July and August). A little rain fell towards the end of August, which was helpful for the Merlot harvest (and the remaining whites) and there was rainfall in September which really helped the Cabernets. Provided producers had not rushed to pick ahead of it fearing the rise of sugar levels, and diminution in crop, in the lead up would produce wines too high in alcohol, or at the other end of the scale, not enough wine at all. Leopold Valentin at Durfort-Vivens said; “We were losing 10% per day during September. Some rain at the end of September rescued everything and the harvest went on until to 12 October.”

Night-time Chills

Many producers cited that although the days were very hot, the nights were, if not exactly cool, significantly less hot that it had been during the day. Jean Charles Cazes of Châteaux Lynch-Bages. Haut-Batailley and Ormes de Pez said: “It was warm throughout the year, and . a much more marked day : night temperature difference, which allowed the canopy to protect – hydric stress was therefore much more gradual. All resulting in a pH 3.7 – the same as normal.”

The overnight cooler temperatures were definitely also a factor said Sara Lecompte Cuvelier of Châteaux Léoville Poyferré, Moulin Riche and Le Crock. According to John Atkinson MW, there was around 15°C diurnal variation in August, although some particularly hot days were followed by as much as a 20°C drop into the night. Conversely in 2003, as anyone who attended Vinexpo that year can attest, was a period of sleep deprivation more due to overnight heat than the usual partying. Or perhaps both.

It’s what’s underneath that counts.

Every year we hear that either ‘argile’ (clay) or ‘calcaire’ (limestone) has been the secret to the vintage’s success (or occasionally, as in 2021, damage mitigation). Usually the claims seem uncannily to mirror whatever the producer has in their particular vineyards, but it is undoubtedly true that clay’s water storage potential, especially where it lies above the bedrock, has helped in this dry vintage, and limestone is, in general, very effective at helping preserve acidity in the grapes upon which it is grown. Both important factors, and this year there was rather more ‘argilo-calcaire’ going on even than normal. Certainly in the Médoc, where the characteristic gravels overlie argilo-calcaire soils this has helped preserve the freshness. The always-charming Vincent Priou of Châteaux Petit-Village and Beauregard in Pomerol is certainly attributing the quality of the vintage to the clay in his vineyards of Pomerol.

Surface Retention

One big difference between 2022 and 2003 in the vineyards is cover crops. Where once anything even vaguely approximating a ‘weed’ was immediately drenched in herbicide, nowadays ‘couverture végetale’ is almost everywhere. Although it is quite hard to see what the attraction of dead-earth vineyards ever really was, what started with pioneers such as  Jean-Michel Comme and Claire Villars-Lurton has now become so widespread as to be the norm. With the reintroduction of biodiversity and the knowledge that selected plants (cereals, légumes, clover, mustard etc) can put back into the soil what the vine is removing, the cover crops also routinely keep the soil temperatures down against the heat of the summer, while not competing for the water that lies deeper than their own roots, thereby also making the vines dig profitably even deeper. More and more producers are proudly turning to organic and biodynamic viticulture and it is wonderful to taste in their wines an equilibrium almost never found in vintages like 2003.

Perfect Harmony and other pHs

The levels of acidity in the must (this can change during fermentation) were disparate to say the least. I heard at least one producer acknowledging pH3.9 (which is rather, although not insurmountably, high). But conversely, at Troplong Mondot, traditionally one of the richest wines of the Right Bank, Rémy Monribot’s must was a slightly lower than normal pH 3.67. In a hot year low figures are surprising. The stereotypical ‘optimum’ for red wine is pH 3.54, and musts at more than pH 3.85 can present problems during fermentation, of increased risk of microbial spoilage. But to offset this, Cabernet Sauvignon especially is a high acid grape, heat has the effect of shrinking the berries which concentrates everything, including acidity (Amarone is not a low acid wine for instance). And as someone pointed out, there was far less malic acidity than normal. Grapes tend to lose this quicker in hot conditions. This meant less lactic acid in the wine post malolactic conversion, which amplifies the freshness of the resultant wine, as lactic acid tastes soft and smooth.

In 2021, few producers were reticent about acknowledging that there had been chaptalisation of the must to increase the alcohol levels (up to, usually, 12.5 or 13%). This year, the flipside to this – acidification – was rather more difficult to gauge. Both are commonplace, and within reason entirely acceptable (although, obviously, never both in the same place!). In Bordeaux either requires a ‘dérogation’ or permission, to happen. Perhaps because years ago chaptalisation was so commonplace as to be the norm, producers are happy to acknowledge it. Acidification is however something of a parvenu in Bordeaux, and people may have been wary of having once commented negatively on its use in hot places like Australia. I am sure that some of the lesser wines in Bordeaux have been acidified in 2022. The only real way to tell in a wine is if it appears to have simply ‘too much’ of everything for bunches of grapes to have achieved the end result – you certainly cannot actually taste it as a substance. This means that acidified wines, or certainly over-acidified ones, are rarely in balance anyway. In the vineyard the means justify the end. In the winery, sometimes, the ends justify the means.

The hand of man

The obvious and simple decision was to pick early – this year the harvests for whites started in mid-August, Merlot at the very end of August, and Cabernets much earlier in September than is usual. But what has also changed in Bordeaux is the expertise, facilities and equipment available to the winemakers. However, producers needed to ensure that the tannins – and there are a lot of tannins – were fully ripe to ensure balance, even if that meant higher than normal sugar levels.

In the winery, rigorous sorting, temperature control (cooler than normal) and sophisticated technology that allowed for softer extraction (less than normal) and prevention of the ingress of oxygen were all of paramount importance. Almost everyone I asked acknowledged that they had done less extraction than normal and that the fermentation had been at cooler temperatures than usual. Those who had extracted less were particularly pleased with the quality of the press wines, and the percentages of these included in the assemblages this year are higher – 28% in Château Margaux, the highest ever, said Philippe Basculet, with a smile “because of the concentration of the fruit, and the lower extraction, the quality of the press wine this year was the best I have ever tasted.”

The end results in Bordeaux 2022 are fabulous. But not universally so. Unlike 2016 – homogenously all terrific (even basic supermarket Bordeaux from 2016 will be the best it can). Other than that, it is certainly the best vintage since 2009 and 2010, and because of the advances in the wineries, probably even better than those. I worry that the richness of some the wines, coupled with relatively soft acidity levels, however derived, will rob them of a little of their ageing potential. I found myself writing ‘will be approachable early’ rather more often than usual. However, there is a lot of tannin, and this normally demands or deserves longevity. This caveat does not apply to the great estates, and I found higher scores than ever before for the top 100 or so properties.

Catch 22. It will be worth it.

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